A catering truck is dispensing soda pop and tacos behind home plate. A young boy is making his way through the stands, raffling off a bottle of brandy. Under the trees on the hill in right field, a family is resting on a blanket.
It’s the sixth inning of a muni-league baseball game at Hazard Park in Boyle Heights.
Suddenly, the serenity is broken momentarily by the commotion on the field. The team at bat is accusing the opposing pitcher of throwing spitballs. He’s not wiping his fingers after he goes to his mouth, they say, and he’s going to his mouth while he’s on the mound, which is against the rules.
At the center of the controversy is a bearded man in a Pittsburgh Pirate uniform, No. 17.
Dock Ellis, it seems, has always been at the center of a controversy.
This is the same Dock Ellis who was called the Muhammad Ali of baseball during a 12-year major league career; who once caused a ruckus by appearing in uniform with curlers in his hair; who once opened a game by hitting three consecutive Cincinnati Red batters on purpose; who once was Maced by a security guard after the guard wouldn’t let him into Riverfront Stadium without identification; who once was challenged to a fight by then-Pirate Manager Danny Murtaugh during a team meeting; who said he pitched a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD.
But this latest controversy passes quickly.
Ellis, who as a minor leaguer once went into the stands with a leaded bat to chase down a heckler, stays cool, even joking with his accusers. There is no mound at Hazard Park, so Ellis scratches out a big circle around the rubber with his shoe. He seems to be promising to clean up his act.
No more protests are heard.
“They were just trying to break his concentration,” says his catcher, Frank Garcia.
Ellis just laughs.
Pitching for a team called Latin Cananea, the 40-year-old Ellis goes on to complete a 14-4 victory over Last Chance, running his season record to 7-0 while striking out 12, walking one and giving up two earned runs and 11 hits.
Later, sitting in the stands, Ellis laughs again about the incident and explains that, in the six years since he stopped playing in the majors, he has mellowed somewhat.
The temper no longer rages. He thinks things through. He listens.
And there’s a reason for it.
He says his appearances this season in the Los Angeles Veterans League (minimum age: 38) are the first he has made without drugs in his system since he was a teen-ager growing up in southeast Los Angeles more than 20 years ago.
Ellis, wearing jeans, a knit shirt and loafers, is sitting in his office in West Hollywood, explaining how he became involved in drug counseling. He is coordinator of the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program of the California Institute for Behavioral Medicine.
After spending 40 days at The Meadows rehabilitation center in Wickenburg, Ariz., in 1980, Ellis said he had a hard time finding follow-up counseling.
“What I was running into was counselors who didn’t have the first-hand experience of dealing with anything,” he said. “It’s hard to identify with someone if they haven’t done anything. It’s all out of a book.”
Ellis’ experiences could fill a book, but they’re all first-hand.
He was experimenting with drugs as a teen-ager, he said. At Gardena High, he was found in the bathroom “drinking wine and getting high,” but was told he wouldn’t be kicked out of school if he agreed to play baseball. He played three games for Gardena.
Arrested for grand theft auto just before signing with the Pirates in 1964, Ellis was placed in the team’s custody. He said he got into serious drinking in Batavia, N.Y., his first stop in the minors.
After ordering a beer in a restaurant “just so I could show everyone I could pass for 21,” he was told by the waitress that he only had to be 19 to drink in New York.
“I said, ‘OK, take the beer back and bring me some vodka stingers,’ ” Ellis said. “That was the opening for me to really get into drinking. Everywhere I went, I was ordering drinks. Playing baseball and drinking go together. It just kept progressing. Marijuana and pills were all over the place. LSD.
“That was the Love Child Era. The hippie-yippies.”
Ellis tried them all. When he
pitched, Ellis said, he used Benzedrine and Dexamyl. Pep pills.
“I was into the speed in the minor leagues because of the expectations put on me by management and by myself to hurry up and get to the big leagues,” he said. “I had a no-miss tag on me. ‘It’s impossible for this kid not to get to the big leagues.’ That’s a lot of stress.
“So how did I deal with the stress? I medicated with the drugs. If I’m high, I’m not afraid of anything.”
By the time he reached the majors in 1968, he was hooked.
How many pills did he need to make it through a game?
“Who knows?” he said. “I just reached into a bag until I got tired.”
Said Ellis: “I was sick , man. I was afraid of success and I was afraid of failure. When you’re into drugs and an alcoholic, it’s all right to lose and it’s all right to win.
“Dealing with a win, I drank and got loaded. And dealing with a loss, I drank and got loaded.”
But dealing with the pressure, he said, had nothing to do with him using LSD on June 12, 1970, the night he pitched a no-hitter for the Pirates in San Diego.
Said Ellis: “That wasn’t something that was done to say, ‘I’m gonna take some acid and pitch.’ ”
High on the LSD, he said, he lost track of the days.
The Pirates flew into San Diego on a Thursday, an off-day.
It was party time.
“I drove to L.A., got loaded, tripped on the acid two or three times,” Ellis said. “I lost a day. It’s Friday and I’m thinking it’s (still) Thursday. The girl (he was with) says, ‘Dock, you’re pitching today.’ . . . I took the acid at 12 o’clock (noon). She told me at 2. I caught the plane at 3. I got to the stadium around 4:30. The game was at 6:05.”
Did he ever consider scratching himself from the lineup?
“Hell, no,” he said. “I was thinking about how I was going to play. Even when I got there, I took greenies (Dexamyl) and some more bennies (Benzedrine) because it was a habit. It was natural to take stuff, forgetting that I had taken the acid.
“So I was way out there.”
He walked eight in a 2-0 win.
Nobody suspected anything?
“I was a loner,” he said. “My involvement with drugs was not with team members. I didn’t get high with no one. They didn’t have to know what I was doing. I was just a crazy guy. So if you see this behavior all the time, it’s natural.”
The next day, when he was interviewed on national television by Curt Gowdy, “I was still loaded,” Ellis said. He came down two days later.
Ellis called his behavior “business as usual.”
He never took LSD again during the season, he said, “but I never pitched a game in the major leagues I wasn’t high.”
Once, he said, he tried to pitch a game “naked,” or free of drugs.
“I couldn’t pitch without the pills,” he said. “I was warming up in the bullpen and I couldn’t even wind up properly, as if I’d forgotten the motion.”
He ran to the clubhouse, pulled some pills out of his pocket and swallowed them with hot coffee, trying to make them “pop,” or dissolve faster than normal. In the process, he said, he burned his mouth.
Ellis retired in the spring of 1980. “I had no desire,” he said. “The drugs and alcohol had really gotten to me, and I didn’t give a . . . “
Later that summer, he entered The Meadows for rehabilitation.
“My body was craving drugs,” he said. “I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t going into all the towns. I wasn’t getting the drugs.”
Ellis said he never paid for the drugs he used--"they were just given to me by people I thought were friends.” He has been free of drugs and alcohol since the day he entered The Meadows, he said.
In 12 major league seasons, Ellis won 138 games and lost 119. He spent eight seasons in Pittsburgh, helping the Pirates win four National League East championships.
He was traded to the New York Yankees after the 1975 season and in 1976 he was 17-8. The Yankees reached the World Series and Ellis was the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year.
So, in his first nine seasons, he pitched in the playoffs five times and the World Series twice. In 1971, he started for the National League in the All-Star Game.
After that, he was a journeyman, pitching for the Yankees, Oakland A’s, Texas Rangers, New York Mets and the Pirates again in his final three seasons.
But his off-the-field exploits always seemed to overshadow what he accomplished as a pitcher. Although he spoke at prisons and did volunteer work for sickle-cell anemia, his career was awash in controversy. Chronicles of his actions, Ellis said, follow him around like an arrest record.
His “rap sheet” includes:
--The Bed Incident. During the 1971 playoffs, Ellis changed hotels in San Francisco in the middle of the night because his bed at the Jack Tar Hotel was not big enough, he said. He complained again about the size of his bed in Baltimore during the World Series.
--The Macing. In 1972, Ellis and teammates Willie Stargell and Rennie Stennett arrived without identification at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. A security guard admitted Stargell and Stennett, Ellis said, but told them they would have to get somebody else to vouch for Ellis’ identity.
Ellis began cussing and screaming. The guard pulled his gun on him and sprayed him with Mace. The guard said Ellis was drunk. The Reds charged Ellis with assault. Ellis brought a countersuit against the Reds. Before it went to trial, the Reds dropped all charges and wrote Ellis a letter of apology.
--The Curlers Incident. In 1973, after a photo went out over the wires showing Ellis in the bullpen wearing curlers in his hair, Ellis was ordered by Pittsburgh management to cease and desist. No more curlers on the field.
Ellis says now that the incident was blown out of proportion--he said he only wore the curlers onto the field one time--but at the time he said the edict smacked of racism and charged that the orders to stop had come from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In his 1976 book, “Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball,” Ellis said he wore the curlers to produce beads of sweat on the ends of his hair, which he used to throw spitballs.
--The Beanings. On May 1, 1974, Ellis opened a game against the Reds by intentionally hitting Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen. He walked the next batter, Tony Perez, on four pitches, throwing the first pitch behind Perez, over his head. After that, Ellis said, Perez was “running.” Ellis then threw twice at Johnny Bench, failing to hit him, before being removed by Murtaugh.
Ellis says it was his intention to hit every Cincinnati batter that day because, after the Reds beat the Pirates in the playoffs in 1972, “all I heard was their players talking about how the Pirates were dumb players, and that’s why they beat us.”
Also, he thought the Pirates had lost some of their aggressiveness.
Ellis said he told his teammates of his plan during spring training.
“I told Kurt Bevacqua, ‘I’m going to drill those. . . ,’ ” Ellis said. “ ‘I’m going to go through their lineup and mow them down.’
“He said, ‘Chateaubriand says you don’t.’ I said, ‘You got it.’ And I did it.”
--The Suspension. After refusing a bullpen assignment on Aug. 15, 1975, Ellis was suspended by the Pirates for one day.
The next day, he called for a team meeting, at which time he was expected to apologize. Instead, he berated Murtaugh, saying he had lost respect for him as a manager. He went on for a while, criticizing management, before Murtaugh, fuming, got up to fight him. Ellis refused. Reportedly, teammate Don Leppert started to take a punch at Ellis, but was restrained.
Ellis was slapped with a 30-day suspension by the Pirates for “insubordination,” but was reinstated on Aug. 30 after apologizing to Murtaugh. That winter, Ellis was traded to the Yankees.
--The Fire. Ellis ranks this one No. 1, the craziest thing he ever did. It was 1977, and he was playing for Oakland.
“They wanted me to keep charts,” he said. “I said, ‘Bleep these charts,’ and I set ‘em on fire. They thought the clubhouse in Cleveland was on fire. The alarm went off. The automatic sprinklers started.”
Ellis’ behavior stirred a lot of emotions. A Pittsburgh paper once described him as “probably the most unpopular Pirate of all-time.” In his book, Ellis said he routinely received death threats.
He says now that the drugs and alcohol caused his erratic behavior. The chemical dependency, he said, contributed to the breakup of his first two marriages.
Still, he said he doesn’t regret anything he’s done.
“It’s been a learning experience for me,” he said.
Would his career have been different if he hadn’t used drugs?
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
The person he is today, Ellis said, is “still crazy, but thinks things out more.” He’s more even-tempered.
His previous involvement with drugs and alcohol, Ellis said, “definitely gives me credibility with my patients.”
But Dr. Howard Stanley Rubin, president and clinical director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine, says Ellis’ charismatic personality is at least as valuable to the program as his experience.
Said Rubin: “He can not only relate to (his patients’) experiences, but because he’s been through it, they can relate to him. He gives people hope that they can make their way through it. . . .
“At the same time, I don’t think all recovering patients would make good counselors.
“It takes a certain empathy and caring for the patients. It takes intelligence and insight and certain charismatic qualities, which Dock has. Those qualities make him a very valuable person both to the clinic and to the people he sees.
“He cuts through a lot of stuff. People want to talk to him. They want to be near him.
“He attracts people.”
Ellis said everybody tells him his personality has changed since he got out of baseball, but he disagrees. To a certain extent.
Asked to describe himself as a player, he says: “Arrogant, flamboyant, controversial.”
“Mild-mannered. Low-key. I’m a people person. Always was. It’s just that, being in the atmosphere and being a big leaguer--I wasn’t an egotistical maniac . . . but we all have to have an ego to be baseball players.”
Nobody ever confronted him about his problems, he believes, “because people were afraid to approach me because I had walls up. I had barriers around me. Anybody got close to me, I cursed them out. Who’s going to talk to a fool who’s cursing them out?”
Not that he’s shy now. He still has his opinions.
As he says: “Ask me a question, and I’ll give you an answer.”
Asked about the prodigious home run that Reggie Jackson hit off him into the lights above Tiger Stadium in the 1971 All-Star Game at Detroit, Ellis fairly bristles.
“He paid for it,” he says of Jackson. " . . . I hit him in the face the next time I faced him. He was with Baltimore (and Ellis was with the Yankees, on July 27, 1976). He knows what it was for. . . .
“He styled on me (by dropping his bat and watching the ball sail out of the park). I didn’t see what he did (at the time). I was high then. I was looking for the ball. I didn’t know where it was. I was looking for the people. The people had their hands up, but there was no ball. The ball was up in the light tower somewhere.”
Ellis said his mind was up there, too, but now he’s back on his feet.
He’s happier and healthier now, he said. At 6-3 1/2 and 215 pounds, he is 12 pounds heavier than when he was playing, but he still looks good in his Pirate uniform.
He lives with his third wife, Jacquelyn, in the Wilshire District.
Dodger scout Mike Brito, who played against Ellis in a similar league more than 20 years ago, got Ellis involved in the L.A. Veterans League. Brito plays first base for Latin Cananea, and when the second season starts in August, Luis Tiant and Orlando Cepeda are expected to join the team.
Ellis is still competitive, he said, “although I get lackadaisical at times.” In the late innings the other day against Last Chance, catcher Garcia started throwing the ball back to him harder than usual to get his attention.
He loves counseling, he said, “because you can talk bleep.”
And he believes he’s doing a service.
“When a person hits that door,” he said, “he’s sick and tired of being sick and tired. I can’t stop people from using drugs, but if they make that initial step, I think I can help.”
Among his patients, he said, are “quite a few” professional athletes, although he wouldn’t name any names or offer any specifics as to exactly how many he counsels.
He said he could have used the same kind of help when he was playing.
Even by helping others now, he said, he helps himself, too.
“When I was playing ball and I was druggin’,” he said, “I would always help someone else and not see myself. But I’ve learned to help myself and to help others, too, rather than helping others and not thinking I’m worthy of being helped.”
So, back in Boyle Heights, was Ellis throwing spitters?
“I can’t throw no spitter anymore,” he said. “I probably could, but I don’t want to play around with no spitter around here. I might hit someone.”
“I was sick , man. I was afraid of success and I was afraid of failure. When you’re into drugs and an alcoholic, it’s all right to lose and it’s all right to win.’
“When a person hits that door, he’s sick and tired of being sick and tired. I can’t stop people from using drugs, but if they make that initial step, I think I can help.’
‘I was into the speed in the minor leagues because of the expectations put on me by management and by myself to hurry up and get to the big leagues. I had a no-miss tag on me. . . . That’s a lot of stress.’